Rotary opens its biggest international meeting ever

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Rotary opens its biggest international meeting ever

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UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivers celebratory remarks at the 2016 Rotary International Seoul Convention, attended by around 50,000 Rotarians, at the Korea International Exhibition Center in Goyang, Gyeonggi, on Sunday. [PARK SANG-MOON]

The curtain was raised on the 2016 Rotary International Seoul Convention on Sunday, and its opening ceremony was attended by the secretary general of the United Nations, the prime ministers of Korea and Sri Lanka - and even the late Paul Harris, who founded Rotary International, the largest civic outreach group, via hologram.

“Today, I want to speak to you about the invaluable partnership between Rotary International and the United Nations,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the 50,000 Rotarians from 160 countries gathered at the Korea International Exhibition Center in Goyang, Gyeonggi. “Our common activities are saving lives and are based on a spirit of trust. My message is simple, based on four words: thank you very much.”

The UN chief emphasized the history of partnership between the two organizations.

“Our two organizations have a long productive history,” he said. “Rotarians even helped with the founding of the United Nations.” Ban cited Rotarians’ presence at the San Francisco conference in 1945 that led to the birth of the UN and the efforts of former Rotary International President Allen Albert in forming the UN.

Ban dwelled on one topic for more than a third of his 10-minute remarks: the eradication of polio, the signature initiative of Rotary International.

“The United Nations is proud to be a partner in ending this debilitating disease,” he said. “I congratulate Rotary International for helping to reduce polio by 99 percent. We have just one percent left. We have to do much more to eradicate polio from the earth.”

The audience responded with prolonged applause. Calling for further cooperation between the two organizations beyond their polio project, the UN secretary general told Rotarians that he “counts on” them to continue supporting the UN to “rise to challenges of our day” together.

The prime ministers of Korea and Sri Lanka also congratulated Rotary International on its centennial of progress and achievements.

“In order to solve the problems of this world, like poverty, diseases, terrorism and conflict, cooperation between countries, regions and civic groups worldwide is indispensable,” said Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. “And the role of community service organizations like Rotary International is so important here.”

Hwang said the Korean government plans to support the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the public-private partnership between national governments led by Rotary International, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also celebrated the accomplishments of Rotary International.

“We do not have polio in Sri Lanka. We have not had it now for more than 20 years,” he said. “And the fact that it happened as it did was due in no small part to you here - to the work of Rotary, and the work of Rotarians at that time in Sri Lanka.

“You are able to go places where governments fear to tread, in a way that no one else can emulate,” he said. “We are glad to have Rotary in our country, for we have seen for ourselves that a community with Rotary, in fact, a country with Rotary, is better off, in every way, than one without.”

Paul Harris, founder of Rotary International, who passed away in 1947, also paid a visit to the convention in hologram form.

“Korea you say? I believe it’s my first time here,” said Paul Harris’s hologram. “This Rotary program of friendship and service, it certainly has succeeded way beyond the dreams of that first little group of ours in Chicago.”

Many Rotarians testified to the camaraderie and fellowship of being part of the Rotary community.

“If you wear your Rotary pin, and you get into trouble, and you ask if there is any fellow Rotarian, no matter where you are in the world, a Rotarian will always help,” said Melanie Sullivan, chief operating officer at Twin Cities Orthopedics in Oak Park Heights, Minnesota, and the president of her club in Minnesota. “It’s a community of people that have the same mission in life all over the world.

“Rotary is one of the best-kept secrets,” she added.

That was a phrase used by many Rotarians in describing their experience.

“You know, Rotary is something like a best-kept secret,” said Joyce Gunter, incoming district governor for District 6890 in Florida. Joyce met her husband Gary Gunter at a Rotary project in Costa Rica.

Stepping onto the stage to the beat of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” during the opening ceremony, Rotary International President K.R. Ravindran was proud to say how different Rotary is from other charity-minded organizations.

“When I took this job 11 months ago, I was convinced that Rotary must be run like a business,” he said. “Our business is literacy, health, livelihood and hope. Our business is life itself. Our business is miracles.”

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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